A bad reputation for years, a vibrant present and a bright future with brand new museums and with the city of Derry being UK capital of culture in 2013 - that's today's Northern Ireland.
It's the place to be now, and tourists are flocking here to enjoy the welcoming atmosphere and the spirit of challenge. The challenge is of a country torn between its Britishness and its Irishness but making a massive effort to carve its own modern identity.
Belfast, the regional capital, has a good nightlife, wonderful exhibitions and the newly iconic Titanic Belfast museum. In the west, Derry, the walled city, is a little jewel.
And there’s more than that too - if you want to explore mountains, seaside resorts, golf courses or a natural wonder like the Giant’s Causeway in the north which is a globally famous landmark, a basalt cliff formed into regular geometric shapes millions of years ago by volcanic power.
I start my visit in Belfast. It's served by two airports, one in the city center and one, International Belfast, in the suburbs, so you can reach the city from many parts of the world. Flights from United States and Canada are used by inhabitants of the New World wanting to trace their roots – Northern Ireland is a land of emigration – while the low cost flights from Europe are for young backpackers wanting to spend some nights in the capital’s clubs or pubs or for cultural tourists attracted by an Irish flavor on British soil.
Not long ago those levels of tourism would have amazed, but this year, 37 cruise ships moored at Belfast’s harbor and more than 2million people slept in its hotels, bed and breakfast locations and hostels.
I start my visit from the Titanic Belfast museum, launched this year, a £97million ($157million €120million) project and a must-see in Belfast.
Tim Husbands, chief executive officer of Titanic Belfast, explains: ‘People come here because this museum is full of human stories. There’s the story of the Titanic, which was built in this city, but there are also the stories of the people involved in it. Passengers, workers, all the men and the women which permitted this dream. Because Titanic was a disaster, of course, but it was also one of the greatest human achievements.’
There are nine galleries, from the history of Belfast to the launch of the ship, to the aftermath. The building is as tall as the Titanic was and is an architectural jewel in a city trying to reshape its seafront.
Then, I go to the MAC, the Metropolitan Art Center, just behind Belfast’s cathedral, in the middle of a new redevolepment area. The main hall is home to The Permanent Present, by artist Mark Garry, a string of colors which is a present for Belfast’s future generations, to remember what has happened and to avoid the same mistakes in the future.
Opened last April, MAC is a space for all the arts. From dance to theater, from paintings to sculptures, everyone can have a chance to exhibit his/her creations.
I decide to have lunch at Nick’s Warehouse, where the owner, Nick Price, delights his guests with modern cuisine made with Irish produce. I try the seafood platter and a selection of Irish cheese. The traditional wheaten bread is unmissable and there is a great wine list to choose from.
In the afternoon, I head to the western part of the city, where the conflict between Catholics and Protestants caused a lot of problems in recent decades. Now, the area is safe, with new bars – mainly for the locals – and new venues. But the past is still there and is recognizable from the propaganda murals on the walls.
After that I take a walk in the renovated Cathedral Quarter, close to the Ulster University and home to thousands of students. Here, after a nice dinner at the Mourne Seafood Bar – try the seafood casserole, delicious – I head to the Kremlin, the biggest gay club in Ireland, full of Soviet-era memorabilia and with concrete walls for a Russian vibe.
Roislin is the manager. She boasts: ‘Belfast’s gay scene has grown and the Kremlin is the best venue to visit. We are open five nights a week, from drag queen shows to students’ nights.’
Drinks are cheap, music is good, and it’s a short walk to my hotel, the Europa Hotel, where I can rest on a comfortable double bed, ready to visit Derry the following day.
The road to Derry is perfectly Irish. Green hills, sheep, rivers, blue sky and country houses. It’s a two-hour journey by coach and Derry welcomes me with its spires, its walls and its charming river.
Next year (2013) Derry will be the first UK capital of culture. The Turner Prize (Britain's annual contemporary art prize) will come here, 170 key events will welcome at least one million visitors – at least that’s what they are predicting – and new bars, cafes and clubs make this little city a place to be, at least from 31 December, when the cultural marathon will begin.
Derry, called also Londonderry, is easy to walk around. The city walls are unmissable, Saint Columb’s Cathedral is a masterpiece and the Bogside area is to see for a journey in the city’s turbulent past – here the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants began. The renovated Ebrington Square, on the river, is going to host many of next year’s events.
The Tower Museum is where you should head to get deeper into Derry’s history, with artefacts, memorabilia and panels explaining what this city has produced. And there’s also a room dedicated to the Spice Girls, with the singers’ original outfits. It's a little strange to find them in Derry, but this is also a symbol of a city which wants to change pace.
For dinner, I go to the Custom House, a gastropub which offers wonderful lamb and seafood. I try the chef’s lamb plate and the cheesecake. The perfect choice to conclude the evening.
But in Derry there’s also a gay venue, The Envy, a gay bar/club in front of the safest place in the city, the police station. Drinks are cheap and the locals are welcoming. You can try karaoke or you can dance with ginger boys and girls. That’s what I did and that’s what you have to do: sing and dance, because life in Northern Ireland now is beautiful and worth celebrating.
Flights: Low cost flights are easy to get from the rest of the United Kingdom and from many destinations in Europe. Intercontinental flies from the United States and Canada.
Sleeping: Try Europa Hotel in Belfast and the Merchant House or the Saddler’s House in Derry.
Eating: In Belfast, Nick’s Warehouse, Mourne Seafood Bar. In Derry, Custom House.
Unmissable: In Belfast, Titanic Belfast, MAC Metropolitan Art Center, Ulster Museum. In Derry, Tower Museum.
Gay life: The Kremlin in Belfast, The Envy in Derry.